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When Everybody's an Expert, Who Can You Trust?
In February 2004, something funky happened on the Canadian version of Amazon.com. Because of a temporary glitch, you could see who had written which anonymous book review--and an amazing number were written by the authors themselves. Everyone has an agenda, right? It seems obvious, but we all forget it: Not all opinions are trustworthy. Rather than following advice blindly, you should always bear in mind where it came from, and how it was gathered. Some may argue that this article is self-serving, but we hate to see people get duped. What's especially galling is when authorities claim to be fair and balanced, and are anything but. Guidebooks Writing travel guides seems like a dream gig. The truth is, writers are rarely paid enough to cover the expenses necessary to do the job properly, let alone earn them a decent wage. So, unlike the major travel magazines, the authors accept freebies--which skews what they write about, and how. Many cut corners on their research, glancing at menus and hotel websites rather than actually evaluating places. Some writers even crib directly from other guidebooks. Furthermore, while most printed materials have a built-in lead time, books are worst of all. By the time a first edition actually sits in travelers' hands, the information is probably at least two years old. Subsequent editions tend only to be updated via phone and Internet, meaning the writer might not have even set foot in the destination in five or more years. What can you do? Always check for the copyright date (though guides are famous for hiding it, burying it at the back or after pages of glossy photos) to make sure the edition is recent. Cross-referencing between guidebooks, and supplementing with Internet sources, also helps. User review sites TripAdvisor, IgoUgo, and other sites that provide platforms where millions of travelers post their opinions certainly have a democratic appeal. But do you really want the opinion of just anybody? There are probably people in your life whose recommendations you don't trust--like the neighbor who lives on fast food and vacations at the same beach town you avoid--so why plan a trip according to a message that was posted by cooldude23? It's easier to take anonymous advice if there seems to be a consensus. But on a recent visit to IgoUgo, eight of what were rated the top 10 hotels in San Francisco were based on the reviews of one person each. The remaining two had two reviews apiece--hardly mass approval. Even when a hotel gets several postings, opinions tend to be all over the map. Las Vegas's Cancún Resort received the lowest possible rating from one reviewer ("beds were thin and you could feel the springs every time you turned over... bathrooms clogged up a couple of times"), a top score from another ("a great resort for a family!"), and several ratings in between. It's all very confusing, and turns the viewer into a psychologist, trying to figure out which message comes from a like-minded traveler. The best idea is to approach these sites like an ice-skating competition and throw out the high and low scores as aberrations. Then read the remarks carefully, looking for specific gripes and compliments about the details that matter to you. Convention & Visitors Bureaus Visitors centers can be wonderful sources of information, often doling out free maps and lodging assistance, but they're rarely completely objective. It's not that they lie outright--it's that they only present a select, enticing assortment of details. A brochure from the Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce boasts of "559.6 miles of unspoiled coastline" yet never mentions that you'll run across more no trespassing and private property signs than you will public beaches. And the fact that parking on the Cape often costs $15 a day for outsiders? If all you read was the brochure, that's something you'd only discover upon arrival. Also, most CVB maps and information centers only list properties that are chamber members (meaning they pay dues), so you might not be getting the whole picture. Small establishments, in particular--cafés, B&Bs, galleries--don't often find it worthwhile to participate. Sometimes, the maps and materials distributed at rest stops and hotels aren't even produced by the CVB. One of our editors, while in Spearfish, S.D., noticed that an interesting-looking restaurant--the Bay Leaf Café--wasn't mentioned in the brochure in his motel room. "The big hotel chains contract out to companies who make other brochures, and they try to get us to buy ads in them," says Taffy Tucker, one of the restaurant's co-owners, when we called for an explanation. "If they're $225 a pop, that's over $1,000. That just doesn't work for us." The editor, who considers himself fairly aware, hadn't even realized that the guide wasn't civic-sponsored. The bottom line: You're wise to ask for a local's unvarnished opinion, and to keep your eyes open. Spokespeople Large companies such as American Express, Travelocity, Expedia, and Priceline employ staffers who present themselves as industry experts always available to the lazier members of the press. Expedia plays no role in house exchanges, but that didn't stop the Chicago Tribune from quoting Expedia spokesperson Cari Swartz on the topic. "Most people," she said, "prefer to stay in hotels." Expedia, of course, is in the business of selling hotel rooms. Some even have journalistic-sounding titles, such as editor-at-large--but they're not bound by journalism's traditional code of ethics. We just can't say it enough: Everyone in this industry has an agenda. And it's not always the same as yours. Before You Post That Nasty Review... A friend of mine recently stayed at a little hotel in Europe. He had a terrible time, so he posted a bad review on TripAdvisor once he got back. The hotel figured out who wrote it, and threatened to sue if he didn't take it down. American reviewers on bulletin boards such as TripAdvisor and IgoUgo might be surprised to learn that the rest of the world doesn't protect free speech the way the U.S. does. "Libel law overseas usually lets Americans be sued for any statement that stings a foreign business or resident," says Kurt Wimmer, a media lawyer at Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C. "And countries are taking the view that their courts can hear any dispute about content that can be accessed over the Internet in their country." As with so many things, you need to know your risks. Say you criticize a French hotel online, and the hotel sues you. "If you don't plan to make a habit of visiting France, you can ignore it," says Wimmer. "If a French court issues a default judgment, you can only be forced to pay if they 'execute' the judgment. And unless you live in the E.U., that's tough to do. If they were to try to execute the judgment in the U.S., they'd have to go to a U.S. court. Our courts have steadfastly refused to enforce foreign judgments that don't comply with our standards under the First Amendment." But what if you do plan on returning to France--or worse, own property there? "I'd be careful," he says. "You may not want to post quite so freely." But another thing to consider is that foreign lawyers don't usually take suits as easily as U.S. lawyers. "If a French hotel wants to sue you for libel, it'll need to pay a lawyer," says Wimmer. "France doesn't have contingency fees, where a lawyer will just take a case for free as long as he gets a cut of the winnings. Frankly, the hotel would know that its chances of collecting anything are slim, and be more likely to try to convince the site to just take a negative post down." All we'll add is that don't assume you'll be able to persuade TripAdvisor to remove your own review. My friend had a devil of a time, pulling every string he could find before getting some help. --Erik Torkells
Driving the Florida Panhandle
Day 1: Tallahassee to Wakulla Springs Minutes after leaving the Tallahassee airport, my boyfriend, Ted, and I realize we're about to experience a side of Florida quite different from hard-partying Miami and built-up Orlando. This is the South: The airport abuts the Apalachicola National Forest, and the road out is lined by thick pines. The forests are so dense, in fact, that Ted makes uncomfortable jokes about expecting to hear "Dueling Banjos." Wakulla Springs State Park, 15 miles from the airport, has a freshwater spring that's 70 degrees year-round. Over the years, divers have explored the depths--at 185 feet, it's one of the world's deepest--and come back up with, among other things, the skeleton of a mastodon, a prehistoric elephant-like animal, which was found in the 1930s. Meanwhile, fishermen found Old Joe, a 650-pound alligator (shot between the eyes in 1966 and now in a vitrine in the lobby of the Wakulla Springs Lodge). We arrive at 10:30 a.m., just in time for a 40-minute boat tour on the Wakulla River, which runs through the park. Our guide is J.J., a young, handsome guy who loses points when he instructs us to call him Captain Crash. "Don't touch the alligators, because they'll touch back," warns the Captain. Beady eyes blink at us from the water, and touching what's attached to them couldn't be less appealing. On the shore, an anhinga, a black-and-white-feathered waterbird, is standing still, its large wings spread out to dry. Somehow it seems foreboding; the fact that the 1954 horror flick Creature From the Black Lagoon was filmed at Wakulla Springs comes as no surprise. Back onshore, I see a sign reading alligators--swim with caution. A more appropriate sign would say swim elsewhere. We move on to meet some friendlier animals at the St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge. The 68,000-acre refuge is a protected winter stopover for migratory birds. We pick up a driving guide to the seven-mile Lighthouse Road, and dutifully veer off at each of the seven pullouts to admire marshes and man-made freshwater pools. From start to finish, ours is the only car on the narrow road; the action is confined to cabbage palms swaying on the shoulder. Signs along the road and walking trails list bird species to look out for, as well as relevant historical facts. Among other interesting tidbits, we learn that Native Americans and colonists used the bark of prickly ash trees to soothe tooth-aches, and made tea from wax myrtle as a stomachache remedy. Spring Creek is a small fishing community 13 miles south of Wakulla Springs. Spring Creek Restaurant, owned by the Lovel family, has an attached gallery that displays drawings of flounder and other fish by the son, Clay Lovel. The fried oyster sandwich is plump and delicious, and while eating, Ted and I flip through Spring Creek Chronicles, a two-volume paperback collection of short stories by the father, Leo, describing his "mullet catching, turkey shooting, offshore fishing, and law evading" activities. We're suitably intrigued and ask Leo, who's behind the counter, to elaborate. He tells us it was nothing serious: "Just fishin' with an outlawed net, but I'm still in court for it." The exchange somehow raises more questions than it answers. We join Old Joe, the monstrous gator, at Wakulla Springs Lodge, built in 1937. A family is playing checkers at one of the marble-topped tables in the lobby, which has hand-painted beams on the ceiling. Our room, which faces the springs, is furnished with a comfortable chaise and a four-poster bed. Ted falls asleep within seconds. Not me. I'm haunted by thoughts of what might be lurking outside. Alligators? Creatures from the Black Lagoon? Leo Lovel with an outlawed net? Lodging Wakulla Springs Lodge550 Wakulla Park Dr., Wakulla Springs, 850/926-0700, floridastateparks.org/wakullasprings, from $85 Food Spring Creek Restaurant33 Ben Willis Rd., Crawfordville, 850/926-3751, fried oyster sandwich $7 Activities Wakulla Springs State Park550 Wakulla Park Dr., Wakulla Springs, 850/926-0700, floridastateparks.org/wakullasprings, car fee $4 St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge1255 Lighthouse Rd., St. Marks, 850/925-6121, fws.gov/saintmarks, car fee $4 Day 2: Wakulla Springs to Apalachicola From Wakulla, we head over a five-mile causeway to St. George Island. At first, I'm disappointed--the Panhandle is famous for its 220 miles of sugar-white beaches, but all I see are masses of vacation homes on stilts. On the less-developed east end, there's more of what I'm looking for. The white sand at St. George Island State Park is dazzling, marked only with the tracks of blue herons. A nature trail winds through a pine forest to the bay side of the island. We're spending the night six miles farther west on the mainland in Apalachicola, which has a long history as a hub for the oyster, sponge, cotton, and lumber industries. Today, the warehouses and offices are mostly gone, replaced by restaurants, boutiques, and tourist shops. Despite all that, it feels more like a lovely, slow-paced village than a buzzing town. (Apalachicola got its first stoplight only weeks before we arrived.) A guy standing in front of the chamber of commerce says that if we want a lunch place with character we should head to Indian Pass Raw Bar, 18 miles west in the town of Indian Pass. From outside, the ramshackle, paint-chipped building looks abandoned. Inside, it seems like the whole town has showed up for lunch. There's hardly room at one of the long tables, which are covered with plastic checkered tablecloths. Each table has a roll of paper towels and a box of Saltines; both come in handy when sopping up the spicy seafood gumbo. It's a small bowl, but it's mighty filling. Returning to Apalachicola, we check in at the Gibson Inn. The grand Victorian was built as a hotel in 1907, and our room has an antique four-poster bed and wicker chairs. I'm glad we're not in room 309, where the ghost of a ship's captain is rumored to appear occasionally. We walk around town, looking at all the beautiful Greek Revival and Victorian buildings dating back to the 1830s. The men who made their money in the town's industries built stately homes, some of which have been turned into inns. We're happy to discover Tamara's Café Floridita. The original owner, Tamara Suarez, moved to Apalachicola in 1996 after 10 years as a TV producer in Venezuela. On a vacation, she fell in love with the town's quaintness, and thought--rightly so--that the locals could use a restaurant that served something other than fried fish. She recently sold the restaurant to her daughter and son-in-law, but the menu remains Latin fusion. Ted and I split four tapas (shrimp with garlic, mussels in wine sauce, crab cakes, and prosciutto with fruit). The crab cakes have a real kick, and we use bread to polish off the wine sauce loaded with capers, red peppers, and shallots. We're in heaven, and somehow we still find room for the perfectly tart key lime pie. Back at the Gibson Inn, we have a nightcap of mint juleps while sitting in rocking chairs on the wraparound porch. Lodging Gibson Inn51 Ave. C, Apalachicola, 850/653-2191, gibsoninn.com, from $85 Food Pass Raw Bar8391 C-30A, Indian Pass, 850/227-1670, gumbo $5.25 Tamara's Café Floridita17 Ave. E, Apalachicola, 850/653-4111, shrimp tapas $5.50 Activities St. George Island State Park1900 E. Gulf Beach Dr., St. George Island, 850/927-2111, floridastateparks.org/stgeorgeisland, car fee $5 Day 3: Apalachicola to Ft. Walton Beach Route 98 is the main road tracing the coast, and for 60 miles to the west, there isn't a whole lot to see other than stores selling spring-break souvenirs. We speed past Panama City, with its go-kart joints, video arcades, and body-piercing salons. In Seagrove Beach, we stop at Cocoon's, a deli and take-out market, to pick up tuna sandwiches and marinated artichoke salad. Then it's on to Eden Gardens State Park. Lois Maxon, a wealthy New York publisher, bought the former lumber baron's estate in the early 1960s and spent most of the decade renovating it and planting 11 acres of gardens. The Choctawhatchee River used to be the main artery for lumber barges, and we make a picnic in the park at a table beside the Tucker Bayou, an inlet of Choctawhatchee Bay, where the lumber was loaded and carted by barge up to Alabama and beyond. On a 45-minute house tour, the guide gives us the lowdown on Maxon's impressive antiques, which include the country's second-largest collection of Louis XVI furniture. The Panhandle of Florida is one of the only places in the country with coastal dune lakes. Because the lakes are filled with freshwater in addition to small amounts of salt water, migratory birds depend on them as a water source, as did Native Americans some 10,000 years ago. It begins drizzling just as we start walking down the two-and-a-half-mile Morris Lake nature trail toward one of the lakes at Topsail Hill Preserve State Park. Still, we continue on through the wet sand, and the sound of the ocean gets louder. A shimmering lake appears between the dunes; lily pads are floating on the surface, mist is rising from the water, bass are jumping and flopping. A quick look is all we can manage before we race back to the car, drenched. Later, someone tells us that alligators live there, too, but luckily we didn't cross their path. Food Cocoon's4101 E. Hwy. 30-A, Seagrove Beach, 850/ 231-4544, tuna sandwich $5 Activities Eden Gardens State ParkC.R. 395 off Rte. 98, Point Washington, 850/267-8322, floridastateparks.org/edengardens, car fee $3, mansion tour $3 Topsail Hill Preserve State Park7525 W. Scenic Highway 30A, Santa Rosa Beach, 850/267-8330, floridastateparks.org/topsailhill, car $2 Day 4: Ft. Walton Beach to Tallahassee The rain has finally stopped by the time we wake up, but it's still a cold 50 degrees, which is fairly normal for winter. Clearly, indoor activities are in order. Every region in the country seems to be gunning for the title of the Next Napa these days, and this part of Florida is no different; in fact, there are five wineries on the Panhandle. At Chautauqua Winery in De Funiak Springs, a short video presentation gives the long view on local winemaking, pointing out that the first wines in the New World were made in Florida in 1662. To our delight, the tasting is free, and the Chautauqua goes all out, serving a total of 17 varietals--in small amounts--including chardonnay, merlot, and zinfandel. My favorite happens to be one of the specialties, the wildflower honey muscadine, a dessert wine made from local muscadine grapes. Because it's a chilly day, the tasting ends with a small glass of hot mulled wine with cinnamon and cloves. With a late flight out of Tallahassee, we've got just enough time to visit Florida Caverns State Park in Marianna, about an hour from the airport. I tend to experience claustrophobia, but ranger Frank Strickland assures me there are no tight squeezes. On the 45-minute tour, Strickland explains how water dripping through the limestone ceiling eventually dissolved the calcium and produced stalactites, stalagmites, and flowstone, a cave formation that resembles a frozen waterfall coating the cavern walls. Some of the especially unusual rock formations we see include a column in the form of a wedding cake and a large blob of flowstone that looks strangely like a pipe organ. It did to me, anyway. Then again, maybe I had a bit too much of that muscadine. Activities Chautauqua Winery364 Hugh Adams Rd., De Funiak Springs, 850/ 892-5887 Florida Caverns State Park3345 Caverns Rd., Marianna, 850/ 482-9598, car fee $4, cave tour $6 Finding your way Pensacola, on the Panhandle's western edge (and served by AirTran), can also work as a starting point for this trip. Note: Hurricane Dennis did some damage to Indian Pass Raw Bar as well as St. George Island State Park. The restaurant will be fixed up by early 2006. However, it's wise to call ahead for updates before visiting the area. A couple of navigational pointers: To drive closest to the beach, take 30A, which veers off Route 98 after Sunnyside; the Chautauqua Winery is at the intersection of exit 85 on I-10 and Route 331, off Business Park Road (it can be tricky to find).
10 Awesome Celebrity-Narrated Audio Tours
We talked with the creative geniuses behind several big-deal celebrity audio tours for the scoop on how the stars were involved and what to know before you go. You can listen to four of the tours right now! In the meantime, we're holding out hope for an aviation museum tour featuring audio by Samuel L. Jackson. 1. Steve Buscemi: Eastern State Penitentiary, Philadelphia Believe it or not, the audio tour for the eerie, once-abandoned Eastern State Penitentiary—famous for locking up Al Capone—was recorded a full seven years before Steve Buscemi nabbed the role of mobster Knucky Thompson on Boardwalk Empire (LISTEN TO THE TOUR!). As director of public programming Sean Kelley tells it, Buscemi himself volunteered to help the museum while scouting a movie at Eastern State more than a decade ago. Kelley took him up on the offer, and Buscemi recorded the tour in four hours at Carnegie Hall, after taking the subway into Manhattan from his place in Brooklyn. "He couldn't have been nicer," Kelley says. Now that Boardwalk Empire has gained so much traction, the penitentiary advertises Buscemi's tour prominently on its brochure, the website, and in the building itself. Want to hear something uncanny? When Capone was arrested and subsequently thrown into the slammer at Eastern State, he was driving from Atlantic City to Chicago, presumably after a meeting with the real-life inspiration for Knucky Thompson. What to know: The audio tour is three hours long, so allow enough time to hear it and visit the entire property. Photography buffs, bring your smartphone and your camera. There are so many bizarre artifacts and historic nooks to shoot here (including the dilapidated prison hospital and Capone's cell, complete with oriental rug), you'll rule Instagram for the day. Professionals, consider paying the $10 tripod fee, valid all season (admission $14, easternstate.org). 2. Sarah Jessica Parker, Naomi Campbell, Shalom Harlow: Victoria and Albert Museum, London The massively popular exhibit Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty has hopped across the pond from New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The show, which celebrates the late fashion designer's dramatic, imaginative clothes, debuts March 14. In the original audio tour, "Sarah Jessica Parker revealed how she was in awe of the designer during fittings for a custom piece, and when the two of them rode together to the Met’s ball, they remained respectively shy of one another," says Blaire Moskowitz, marketing manager for Antenna International, the company that produced the McQueen audio tour and several others on this list. What to know: The exhibit runs through August 2, but buy your tickets now: Tickets are sold by timeslot, and some are nearly full (admission about $27, vam.ac.uk). 3. Clint Eastwood: Tacoma Art Museum, Tacoma, WA The brand-new American Western Art wing of the Tacoma Art Museum has a familiar voice. Clint Eastwood's gravelly tamber narrates classic imagery of the west, including bucolic landscapes, mountain men, prairie animals, and cowboys immortalized by painters and sculptors like Thomas Moran and Alexander Phimister Proctor, plus contemporary works from Georgia O'Keeffe and Native American artists including Kevin Red Star. What to know: After you've seen the art indoors, take the free Dale Chihuly mobile walking tour, which guides you through downtown Tacoma to visit the artist's glass installations. Just call 888-411-4220 on your cellphone and listen; Chihuly himself narrates part of it (LISTEN TO THE TOUR!) (admission $14, tacomaartmuseum.org). 4. Angélica Aragón: Frida Kahlo Museum, Mexico City, Mexico While recording the audio tour for the bright-blue Frida Kahlo Museum, popular Mexican actress Angélica Aragón mentioned to the sound engineer that her grandmother used to be part of Kahlo's small circle of friends years ago. The museum hadn't known that! Aragon was initially hired for her gravitas and dignified voice that felt perfect for Kahlo's story—now even more so. What to know: Complement your visit to Kahlo's museum with a trip to the Anahuacalli Museum, also in Mexico City (admission about $4), which houses pieces from Diego Rivera's large pre-Hispanic art collection (admission about $6, museofridakahlo.org.mx). 5. Jeremy Irons: Westminster Abbey, London Oscar winner Jeremy Irons has the distinction of narrating the English-language audio tour for Westminster Abbey. Fitting, considering Irons played Pope Alexander VI on Showtime's The Borgias (LISTEN TO THE TOUR!). Travelers also have good things to say about the 90-minute verger-led tours of the abbey's notable spots, including the tomb of Saint Edward the Confessor, Poets' Corner (Chaucer and Dickens are buried there), the Cloisters, and the Nave. If you'd rather worship at the abbey than tour it, there is never a fee for that. What to know: Prep for your visit by downloading the abbey's free podcasts (itunes.com), which range from recordings of choral concerts to lectures (worship is free, admission about $30, verger tours about $8, westminster-abbey.org). 6. Dolly Parton: Country Music Hall of Fame, Nashville, TN Would you expect anything less than vocals from Dolly Parton herself at the Country Music Hall of Fame? Step into the Hall of Fame Rotunda, a skylighted room emblazoned with bronze plaques for each member of the Hall of Fame, and you'll hear her voice on the audio tour. As Dolly says, "This special room is round, to ensure that every Hall of Fame member has a place of equal importance, and the members’ plaques are placed randomly around the room—except for the newest members, whose plaques can be found alongside the painting." The painting she speaks of is Thomas Hart Benton's The Sources of Country Music, a canvas depicting fantasy musicians ranging from gospel singers to hoedown dancers, commissioned in 1973. What to know: Along with the must-do rotunda portion of the museum, 2015's lineup includes separate exhibits featuring the careers of Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Tanya Tucker, Ronnie Milsap, Alan Jackson, and Kenny Rogers (admission plus audio tour $27, countrymusichalloffame.org). 7. Jerry Seinfeld, Scarlett Johannson, and more: Central Park, New York City Name your favorite NYC-affiliated personality (Susan Sarandon! Anne Hathaway! Pat Kiernan!), and chances are he or she narrates one of the 41 locations on Central Park's newly updated audio tour, accessible from your cellphone via the Official Central Park App or by dialing the guide's phone number (LISTEN TO THE TOUR!). The most-accessed parts of the tour are the sculpture of Balto the sled dog (John Stoessel), Bethesda Terrace (George C. Wolfe), and the bronze Alice in Wonderland statue (Whoopi Goldberg)—but they're perennially popular locales, guide or no guide. Still, it can't hurt to have Brooklyn's own Oda Mae Brown on your side. Fun fact: All of the celebrities recorded the tour pro bono. What to know: When you download the Central Park app for the tour, you'll also get interactive location-based maps of the park, event listings (many of them free), a souvenir shop, and an index of points of interest with photos (free app, free entrance to the park, 646-862-0997, centralparknyc.org). 8. Jamie Lee Curtis: World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, Honolulu, Hawaii Adding a very personal touch to the Valor in the Pacific National Monument, Jamie Lee Curtis reveals during the 75-minute USS Arizona Memorial audio tour that her father fought in the Pacific Theater during World War II. In her own words: "In 1945, he witnessed the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay from the signal bridge of his submarine tender, USS Proteus." What to know: Head to the Pearl Harbor Visitor Center first; from there, you can walk to the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park and take the Ford Island shuttle to the Battleship Missouri Memorial, the USS Oklahoma Memorial, and the Pacific Aviation Museum. Walk-in tickets are distributed on a first-come, first-served basis, so arrive early to boost your chances of getting in on the spur of the moment (free admission to the monument, audio tour is $7.50, nps.gov). 9. Joanna Lumley, Alan Rickman, David Nighy, and more: St. Mary's Church, Fairford, Gloucestershire, England Last year, after St. Mary's Church introduced its two-hour audio tour featuring a slew of famous UK actors like Joanna Lumley and Hayley Mills, attendance doubled to 75 people per day, all eager to hear the celebrities describe the church's vibrant Medieval stained-glass windows in detail. (Rumor has it Sir Ian McKellan declined, as he's an atheist.) Churchwarden Mike Godsal says Lumley's portion of the audio guide is the most popular. Of course, that could be due to the fact that she voices the tour's introduction, but we like to think it's because everyone wants to hear booze aficionado Patsy Stone from Absolutely Fabulous talk about church. What to know: All 28 windows date from 1501 to 1515, making St. Mary's the only church in the UK to boast a complete set. If you'd like a personal guided tour, contact the church office by phone or email (free admission, 01285-712611, stmaryschurchfairford.org.uk). 10. Kevin Bacon: NY Skyride, Empire State Building, New York City Okay, yes, NY Skyride, on the second floor of the Empire State Building, has only one Yelp star and is rated as a "terrible" "scam" on TripAdvisor, but die-hard Kevin Bacon fans who have $42 to blow are in for a treat. Take a seat in front of an 18-foot screen, and Bacon—or his voice, anyway—"flies" you around New York City in a "virtual tour simulator" contraption for half an hour. Worth the cash? Probably not. But if it this sounds like a blast to you, we won't judge. What to know: Buyer beware. This ride is not affiliated with the Empire State Building Observation Deck, so try it at your own risk. Many travelers say they were suckered into buying a combination ticket by a street vendor outside the building's entrance, so understand what you're getting into before handing over any cash (admission $42, skyride.com).
The Inspiration Behind Some of Our Favorite Reader Photos
In every issue of Budget Travel, we feature one of the best reader photos on our back page. Now, see the stories behind them. Madison, WisconsinThe University of Wisconsin students have a real sense of humor. Their Lady Liberty on the Lake prank is a classic image of Madison that has made it onto postcards all over the city. During the summer, I'm usually sailing on Lake Mendota, but when it's five below zero, you've got to take advantage of it, too. So one February, I decided to see it for myself. I took this shot from the Memorial Union Terrace, but I actually went out on the lake and took some close-ups as well. I know how deep the water is and it was completely disorienting to be walking on it. I've live here for 35 years, but sometimes you need to look at your own hometown through a tourist's eye.—Cliff Koehler, Madison, Wis. Top tip: When you shoot a larger-than-life landmark, include people in the frame to emphasize the dramatic scale. Iwakuni, Yamaguchi Prefecture, JapanPhotography is very popular in Japan—sometimes it's hard to find a place to stand because you're surrounded by photographers. I'd managed to find a spot to shoot the stage performance at our town's annual flower festival when I saw a bunch of little girls dressed in kimonos, shouting and chasing one another. It definitely caught my attention—the Japanese are usually very reserved. So while the rest of the photographers were looking at the stage, I had these girls all to myself. It was pretty spontaneous.—Diana Ni, Iwakuni, Japan Top tip: To adjust for bright light, aim at a less sunny spot, push the shutter button halfway, and hold it. Then frame your subject and shoot. Mekong Delta, VietnamNo matter where you go in this country, you get an amazing palette of greens. From the rice paddies of the north to the jungles of the south, the color carries through—it's Vietnam's common thread. When you're on your way from Ho Chi Minh City to Ben Tre, deep in the delta, the Mekong is so expansive that it almost feels like a big lake. Then you turn into one of these tributaries, and you're in the middle of a tunnel of foliage. In this photo, the limitations of my point-and-shoot actually helped: As the camera tried to focus on the light, it created dark, blurred edges, which better conveyed the mood. The light streamed in through the canopy, and suddenly, you could see a path filled with water taxis and hte mostly older women who pilot them. They're stone-faced and businesslike, just doing their thing.—Steven Cypher, Pittsburgh Top tip: Don't be afraid of negative space! Try surrounding your subject with a dark or an empty frame to make the focal point pop. Havana, CubaI'd always wanted to go to Cuba to see the old cars and buildings, but I wasn't prepared for the amazing atmosphere of Havana's town squares: men playing instruments, ladies dancing, horse carts waiting to pick up passengers. When I travel, I tend to avoid portraits—landscapes can't make a fuss!—but when I saw this lady, I had to take her picture in front of this yellow wall. She spoke no English, and I don't speak Spanish well, so we used hand signals. She was silent the entire time, but her eyes were so playful and feisty as she pulled this fan out of nowhere and began showing off. Her expression drew me in—not unlike the dancers in the street who reeled in strangers to join them.—Giovanna Tucker, London. Top tip: When taking portraits outside, use the flash to light faces evenly; sunlight can often leave one side in shadow. Ehukai Beach Park, Oahu, HawaiiBelieve it or not, I'm petrified of water—I don't know how to swim and could drown in a bathtub. But photographing water fascinates me, which is why I come back to Oahu's North Shore year after year. As long as I keep my distance. I'm just fine, but I've taken out an insurance policy on my photography equipment! I took this shot in the late afternoon with the sun behind me so that the image wouldn't be blown out from the glare. Sometimes, I'll set the camera on continuous shooting mode and take several at once, following the wave from a swell to its final break. You have to be patient—you never know what you'll see. I've witnessed 30-foot walls of water. I've seen the pipeline when it was a graceful barrel, and I've seen it when it was the way it is in this shot—disheveled, unruly, ever-changing.—Diane Glatzer, Brooklyn, Ohio Top tip: Set your camera to a faster shutter speed. It will freeze the action of hte water so you can capture every droplet in the air. St. Paul's Cathedral, LondonI was interviewing for a job in London, and my potential employers flew me in for one day of meetings, with a flight home the next morning. Since I'd never been to the city, I treated myself to a quick tour. Suddenly, something very London occured: It started to pour. I happened to be passing St. Paul's Cathedral, so I dove in to escape the rain. I hadn't planned to stop, but because I was already inside, I decided to climb the famous dome. On the way up, I glanced out the windows. The sun had started to come out and the rain was clearing, so I ran the rest of the way to catch the view while I had the chance. The light was breathtaking, as the clouds cast geometric shadows on the square below. It didn't last long—the rain picked back up almost immediately. Little did I know you could stumble on such a great way to see the city.—Sheila Cherry, Columbus, Ohio. Top tip: Cloudy days can make for muted photos. Use iPhoto or Windows Live Photo Gallery to adjust contrast and make colors pop. Boyce, VirginiaThere were easily 100 photographers at the annual Shenandoah Valley Hot Air Balloon Festival—I have pictures of other photographers just jockeying for position. I got one great shot of a big red-and-purple balloon, but at a certain point I just gave up and was walking away when I spotted this dog. It had drifted up a little valley, and I realized if I could get to the right spot it was going to float directly in front of the sun. The thing about those balloons is that they're beautifully illuminated if you can get the light right behind them, and I managed to capture this just as the sun peeked out from behind the leg. It wasn't until I got home that I discovered exactly what I had.—Rick Collier, Reston, Va. Top tip: Don't sleep in. Sunsets get all the glory, but the golden light of sunrise lends photos crispness. (As do morning frost and fog.) Eiffel Tower, ParisTen years after my first trip to Paris, my mother and I returned to mark the anniversary. For almost the entire trip, the sky was cloudy and gray, and by the last day, we'd given up hope of snapping that Perfect Photo. Somewhat defeated, we sat on a bench near the Eiffel Tower. Just then, the sun emerged, and with it, out came the Parisians! With only one bar left on my camera's battery, this ended up being my last picture of the trip. Everyone takes the classic vertical shot to fit the whole tower in the frame, but that way, you miss so much life below it. I chose to focus on just the base to capture the Frisbees, the cotton candy, the tourists in line. I've still never made it to the top—I'm too distracted by what's going on underneath.—Lauren Meshkin, El Segundo, Calif. Top tip: Avoid using the LCD screen, flash, or timer unless you need them for the shot. They draw serious charge from your battery. Easter Island, Chile. There is such mystery surrounding the moai of Easter Island. These monoliths date back at least 500 years and were somehow scattered by the hundreds across this South Pacific island. On an around-the-world trip, my wife and I made a point to visit the iconic stone statues, but we wanted to capture them in a unique way. To achieve this shot, we created a whole theater out there in the middle of the night. I set my camera to a 30-second exposure, while three others in our group "painted" the moai with the beams from their flashlights, leaving the statues perfectly bathed in light. The setting, on the other hand, required no special effects. Because there are no big cities on the island and thus no light pollution, there were more stars in the sky than I had ever seen in my life.—Andy Coleman Top tip: At night, it's difficult for digital cameras to auto-focus on faraway items. To compensate, set to manual and focus to infinity. Bali, IndonesiaI've always been struck by that classic image of Balinese women carting mountains of fruit on their heads. On a recent trip to the island, our hotel manager in the tourist town of Ubud told us about a Hindu festival in his village 30 minutes away, and I jumped at the chance to go. The event didn't disappoint: The priests, the men gambling, the gamelan music—and we were the only foreigners there. Wandering down the road, I came upon this duo headed toward the temple, carrying offerings to be blessed by a Hindu priest. They never stopped walking, and I never said anything. Undistracted, they exuded such a natural calm and beauty. I felt as if I'd been waiting my whole trip for exactly this shot.—Judi Fenson, San Diego, Calif. Top tip: For portraits of people in motion, leave space in the frame for the subject to move toward. It feels more realistic and unposed. Coney island, Brooklyn, N.Y. I've been visiting Coney Island since I was a child, but I've never been a huge fan of rides. I go for the ambiance. There's something thrilling about watching tourists scream for their lives. On this particular June day, I was just wandering around eating a shish kebab, enjoying the warm weather. Right as I was about to leave, I found myself under the Brooklyn Flyer, just as the ride—and the screams—started up. I was able to capture the scene from an unexpected angle, and now, every time I look at it, I can't help but feel a bit queasy, as if I were in one of those seats!—Jorge Quinteros, Queens, N.Y. Top tip: Avoid blur when shooting fast-moving objects by using your "action" setting (look for a running man icon). Potala Palace, Tibet As a child I saw Potala Palace, the Dalai Lama's former home, on a postcard. After that, I always dreamed of visiting it. In 2005, my wife and I arranged a trip to Tibet, and I finally got my chance. We arrived at the palace at midday, and the contrast between old and new immediately struck me: the traditionally dressed Buddhist monk using a digital camera; the sparkling new fountains in front of the 17th-century building. The scene was undeniably contemporary, but somehow it was just as wistful and aged as the postcard I saw all those years ago.—Jackson Ng, San Francisco, Calif. Top tip: You should generally use a flash for shots in high sun. It pops the foreground and eliminates shadows. St. Peter's Basilica, RomeA few years ago, my husband and I took our first trip to Rome. Because of a nasty flight delay, we were completely exhausted by the time we reached our first stop, the basilica; we hadn't slept in about 36 hours. The church was predictably crowded—people were going this way and that, gawking at the ceiling, taking photos—but at the same time, it was nearly silent. These amazing beams of late-afternoon light poured through the oculus, and you could feel a palpable presence in the room. Even now, we look at this picture and both get the chills. —Jennifer and Marty Flinn, Lompoc, Calif. Top tip: When you can't use a tripod, squeeze your elbows into your chest for support, inhale, exhale, and shoot. Brooklyn Bridge, New York CityThis photo is all about what you can't see: the New York skyline. Unlike in other cities (say, fog-filled San Francisco), Manhattan's skyscrapers are almost always visible, no matter the weather or vantage point. But when this blizzard hit about 10 years ago, everything seemed to just disappear. To capture the moment, I grabbed my camera and headed across the Brooklyn Bridge. Without the lights of the city, it felt like another world. These four people were the only ones I saw. Collectively, it was as if we were members of a secret and privileged club—and no one else on earth knew we were there. —Martrese White, Portland, Ore. Top tip: For low-light shots, stabilize shaky hands with a tripod. Also use your camera's timer to minimize unnecessary jostling when snapping the shutter. Sintra, PortugalMy husband, our two teenage daughters, and I were on a weeklong camping trip in Portugal about a year ago, and we stopped in Sintra, a medieval hill town of castles and alleyways about 30 minutes northwest of Lisbon. While everyone else set off in search of a bakery, I took a blissful walk on my own. Down a side street, I spotted two musicians playing bandoneones while a couple danced slowly, like they were completely in love. If I could explain Sintra with just one picture, this would be it: romantic, timeless, and enchanting. —Miriam Cinquegrana, Tappan, N.Y. Maui, HawaiiIn April, my girlfriend and I went to Maui, where I signed up for a motorized hang-gliding flight off the Hana coast. After strapping in at Hana Airport, the guide and I rose to about 4,000 feet. At that point, he cut the engine, and we drifted down. Below, I saw the waterfalls at Oheo Gulch, a full-circle rainbow, and the black-sand beach at Waianapanapa State Park. My adrenaline was pumping the whole time. It may have been the altitude, sure, but it was also thrilling to see the island in a way that so few visitors get to. —David Shrader, Bothell, Wash. Basilique du Sacré-Coeur de Montmartre, ParisIn February, my friend and I added a two-day Paris layover to our return flight from India. While climbing the steps of Sacré-Coeur, I spotted a group of schoolchildren, each clutching a balloon. Their excitement was palpable; something was definitely about to happen. Sure enough, their teacher gave a signal, and the children released the balloons with a high-pitched chorus of "au revoir!" Neither of us speaks much French, so we never figured out what the event was all about, but somehow the mystery made the scene that much sweeter. —Jen McDonald, Nashville, Tenn. Oia, Santorini Island, GreeceIn September 2008, I went to Oia, on Greece's Santorini island, with my mother-in-law and two friends. I'd planned the getaway carefully, but somehow I forgot to pack my swimsuit, so I picked up a bright-pink bikini in Athens. It's the kind of thing I would never normally wear; it doesn't cover much. One afternoon, we came back to our vacation rental, the Oia Riva Villa, and hung our suits up to dry. Something about the color of the two-piece against the whitewashed walls struck me. In the early evening light, this little scene perfectly captured the essence of our trip. —Lara Dalinsky, Alexandria, Va. Plaza de Armas, Cuzco, PeruAfter a full day of sightseeing in Cuzco, my girlfriend, Brittany, and I were exhausted. To catch our breath—literally, since the city sits at 11,024 feet—we retreated to the second-floor balcony of La Retama restaurant. Toward the end of the meal, I put down my pinot grigio and spotted this inverted reflection of La Compañía church in my glass. I started snapping photos, and this shot was the best of five. It captures the spirit of the moment and will always remind me of a life-changing trip. —Thomas Cox, Lexington, Ky. Lake Atitlán, GuatemalaOn my second day in Panajachel, a town on the northern shore of Guatemala's Lake Atitlán, I got up around 5 a.m. to prowl around. The lake is normally very busy with boats, but at this hour, it was deserted, save for this solitary fisherman rhythmically casting his net. It seemed he'd been out on the water long before the sun came up, and I got the impression that he'd be there for hours more. I didn't plan this shot, but he happened to move just where I wanted him to be. —Rebecca Wilks, Peoria, Ariz. Piazza della Rotonda, RomeOn our first day in Rome, my partner, Anthony, and I set out to see the city's ancient monuments. There was so much activity—couples kissing on the Spanish Steps, tourists crowding the Trevi Fountain, nuns snapping photos with their cell phones. After a long walk, we stopped for dinner as the sun set over the Fountain of the Four Rivers, and at sundown, we started to retrace our steps. In the darkness, everything was still buzzing, but it was somehow hushed—reverent, even. Locals and visitors sat at cafés outside the Pantheon, taking it in and perhaps imagining the millions of people who have shared this same experience. —Timothy State, Chicago, Ill. Just back from a trip? Upload your pictures to BudgetTravel.com, and we just might feature one on our back page.
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Decatur is a city in, and the county seat of, DeKalb County, Georgia, which is part of the Atlanta metropolitan area. With a population of 24,928 in the 2020 census, the municipality is sometimes assumed to be larger since multiple ZIP Codes in unincorporated DeKalb County bear Decatur as the address. The city is served by three MARTA rail stations (Decatur, East Lake, and Avondale). The city is located approximately 5 miles (8.0 km) northeast of Downtown Atlanta and shares its western border with both the city of Atlanta (the Kirkwood and Lake Claire neighborhoods) and unincorporated DeKalb County. The Druid Hills neighborhood is to the northwest of Decatur. The unofficial motto of Decatur used by some residents is "Everything is Greater in Decatur."
Dunwoody is a city located in DeKalb County, Georgia, United States. As a northern suburb of Atlanta, Dunwoody was incorporated as a city on December 1, 2008 but its area establishment dates back to the early 1830s. As of 2019, the city has a population of 49,356, up from 46,267 in the 2010 Census.
Sandy Springs is a city in northern Fulton County, Georgia and an inner ring suburb of Atlanta. The city’s population was 93,853 at the 2010 census, and estimated at 109,452 in 2019. It is Georgia's seventh-largest city (after Athens) and the site of several corporate headquarters, including UPS, Newell Brands, Inspire Brands, Cox Communications, and Mercedes-Benz USA's corporate offices.
Duluth is a city in Gwinnett County, Georgia, United States. Located north of Interstate 85, it is approximately 22 miles (35 km) northeast of Atlanta. As of the 2010 census, Duluth had a population of 26,600 and the United States Census Bureau estimated the population to be 29,609 as of 2019.This Atlanta suburb is home to Gwinnett Place Mall, the Gwinnett Civic and Cultural Center, Infinite Energy Center, Hudgens Center for the Arts, and the Red Clay Theater. It is also home to Northside Hospital–Duluth, an 81-bed hospital constructed in 2006, as well as GMC's Glancy Campus, a 30-bed facility located near downtown. The agricultural manufacturer AGCO is based in Duluth.